In March 2004 George Steinbrenner, his health just starting to slip, invited me into his office and boardroom at Tampa's Legends Field for what neither one of us could know would be one of his last extensive interviews. Steinbrenner gave me all the time that I wanted, looking back wistfully on his life during a period when his friends were dying off and a fainting spell he had suffered at the funeral of Otto Graham only three months earlier had augured the slow decline of his own faculties.
It was one of the most fascinating interviews I have ever done, in part because Steinbrenner was so willing to open up. The interview appeared to be at an end several times, only Steinbrenner would restart it with some memento or photograph he wanted to show me or some story he wanted to share. When at last our time had ended, he practically apologized for keeping me. We were standing in his boardroom, next to the long wooden table where the great Yankee dictator had berated and fired small villages of employees, near the stocked refrigerator with a yellow sign on that read: FOR GMS ONLY.
"I hope I didn't ramble too much," he said. "I'm afraid that I did."
I reached out to shake his hand, and he surprised me by extending both arms and wrapping them around my back for a hug.
"It was a fun time," he said. "OK, pal."
A hug from George Steinbrenner was the most unexpected end to an interview I ever had known. I had entered the room thinking he was probably the most complex person I have covered and left, after that hug, convinced of it.
Steinbrenner was one of the most charitable people imaginable but often treated his own employees rudely. He said he was motivated by the fans of New York --the cab drivers, subway riders, firemen -- but he chose to live in Tampa. He was great for baseball because of the way he rebuilt the Yankees franchise into a preeminent international brand, but he was banned from the game not once, but twice: first for illegal campaign contributions in the early 1970s, then for his association with a known gambler nearly two decades later. He was a shipbuilder who woke up every morning thinking about winning baseball games.
Steinbrenner was loved and loathed, and he will be remembered as the most influential sports owner of his generation, an icon who some have said is worthy of the Hall of Fame. But when I asked Steinbrenner about the possibility of him being enshrined, he said he did not belong.
"I don't want to be in the Hall of Fame," he said. "I don't think owners should in the Hall of Fame. Maybe Connie Mack. But not George Steinbrenner. No way. It's for the players. If they have an Owners Hall of Fame, I'll consider it. But believe me, I don't want to be in the Hall of Fame."
I had covered Steinbrenner since 1982, and as a Yankees beat writer understood the sheer 24-hour terror of what it means to cover his team in the highly competitive New York newspaper market. There were the phone calls that could come at any hour, in which the speaker, Steinbrenner, would begin talking without saying hello or identifying himself. The trouble was that sometimes one of those phone calls went to another reporter, and the rest of us were left without the story. There were the nights covering Billy Martin, which meant after you covered the ball game, you covered the hotel bar.
After that 2004 interview, however, I began to comprehend the complicated nature of the man. He was driven hard by his father. George knew he wasn't as smart as his father (George couldn't get into MIT, his father's alma mater) nor as athletic. (His father was a champion hurdler.) Steinbrenner told me the story of a spring training game in 1977, the season after Steinbrenner won his first pennant, when his father threw out the first pitch. His father grumbled to a friend, "The kid finally did something right."
At the same time Steinbrenner had a great willingness to help others. His softer side, especially his charitable side, he told me, came from his mother. And much of his philanthropy was done without promotion. "I believe the good you do for others comes back to you," he said. "But if you do something good for some other person and more than two people know about it, then you didn't do it for the right reason."
And yet he admitted that he was often "unreasonable" in the way he treated his employees; indeed, after firing several managers, he'd start thinking about rehiring them the next day. "It's hard for me to catch myself sometimes," he said. "I can remember one time with [his public relations director] when I made him stay in his room to get [my phone] calls. I said, 'You're my p.r. man. You be in the room if I need you.' I was going through some tough times then."
During that interview in 2004 we talked about Steinbrenner's mortality. He had once proudly said, "I will never have a heart attack. I give them," an observation that seems particularly poignant this week. But the fainting episode at Graham's funeral had changed the way he looked at life. I asked him if it had put a scare into people who couldn't think of the Yankees without George Steinbrenner.
"I don't think it scared anybody in New York," he said dismissing the question. "Why would they be scared? If I had gone, so I'd gone. They wouldn't have cared much, I don't think. They had no business to care."
Oh, but he was wrong about that. People may have hated or loved Steinbrenner, but they cared. He bought the Yankees for $8.8 million, and today, coupled with their television network, they are worth 340 times that amount. You can sit in a seat in an opulent $1.5 billion ballpark in the Bronx sipping champagne and watching a $3 billion franchise play ball and know that George Steinbrenner had more to do with creating that tableau than anybody else. Indeed, the two men most responsible for what the Yankees are today are Babe Ruth and George Steinbrenner. Even his father would have admitted that the kid did something right.